Pay Equity for Federal Public Servants

Ron Basford's name did not come up on Parliament Hill last week. In all the shouting and celebrating and finger-pointing after the Federal Court of Canada handed Ottawa a possible $5-billion pay-equity bill, no one invoked the name of the Liberal justice minister whose 1978 human rights law triggered this long-running - and very expensive - saga. Basford is 67 years old now, and has been retired from active politics for more than two decades. He lives on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, where he divides his time, as he puts it, between "tending a very large garden, and trying to catch fish that don't seem to exist." But he has kept an eye on the endless arguments and court cases that followed the passage of his bill, in which the Trudeau government laid out the principle that men and women should get equal pay for work of equal value - then stepped back to let the CANADIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION sort out the devilish details. "I still can't understand how the process bogged down," Basford said in an interview last week. "Good God, if Parliament says something should happen, surely it shouldn't take 20 years to implement."

But it did - and only with the help of the courts. The battle began in 1984, when a group of clerical and regulatory employees registered a pay-equity complaint with the commission. It appeared to finally end last week when, in a 92-page judgment, Judge John Evans said Ottawa should listen to Supreme Court of Canada admonishments that human rights laws should be "interpreted in a broad and liberal manner." He then ordered the government to abide by a 1998 Human Rights Tribunal ruling awarding about 200,000 federal civil servants (mostly women, but including several thousand men as well) an average of just under $2,000 for every year of government service. With interest, the final bill for the government is expected to fall between $3.5 billion and $5 billion.

Most federal employees kept their joy at this windfall under wraps last week, at least in public. "When the news came in, people here were screaming for five minutes, but then the worrying began," says Richard Thibert, 32. A financial clerk at Transport Canada, he stands to receive about $15,000 in back pay from time he was employed in jobs classified by the human rights commission as "predominantly female." But, Thibert adds, "the government has delayed for so long, it might do it again."

Jean Chrétien's Liberals, however, appeared to have little stomach to carry the fight further - in the face of public criticism that they were not living up to past pledges of equality. Justice department officials went through the motions, examining the Evans ruling to see if there were technical grounds for an appeal to the Supreme Court. But on Friday, the government said it would seek a settlement with its employees' largest union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Most Liberal MPs, including Treasury Board president Lucienne Robillard, the responsible minister, favoured settling the issue. "It's the cost of justice," Ontario Liberal Gar Knutson hollered across the Commons' aisle at Reform party MPs who were demanding the government fight on in the name of Canadian taxpayers. And Chrétien said the only real question left was "how much money has to be paid."

On that point, the government had already set some money aside for this eventuality - a sum, according to officials, that exceeds the $1.3 billion the Liberals offered to PSAC as an out-of-court settlement last year. Finance department officials, who say it will take about a month to determine which public servants are owed exactly how much, also say there may be room to make the union an offer below the $5-billion ceiling. Some of the outlay, meanwhile, will be clawed back in income taxes. And Ottawa can dip into the $3-billion contingency fund it builds into every budget to help ensure unexpected bills don't drive the government back into a deficit. "It's a big whack of cash," said one senior Liberal, "but it's not as traumatic as it might seem."

In fact, the onerous - but one-time - demand on public funds may actually help Finance Minister Paul Martin beat off the parade of petitioners to his door in the months leading up to next February's budget. Burgeoning surpluses have made it harder for Martin to discourage his fellow Liberals from embarking on a spending spree. "Eighty per cent of our caucus is for the principle of tax cuts instead of new spending," said one Ontario Liberal MP. "But every one of that 80 per cent has their own special project that they believe deserves funding."

In fact, the Oct. 12 throne speech indicated that Ottawa was ready to get its wallet out and live it up a bit. And with provincial premiers like Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow also lining up to stake their claim to more federal funds, most civil servants are demanding their money quickly. "The longer they wait, the more it costs the public," says Janet Mahoney-Rose, 58, who joined the public service as a secretary in 1958 and took early retirement in 1996. Mahoney-Rose figures she will receive between $30,000 to $35,000 in back pay. "This has been deserved for a long, long time," she says. "And these are not wealthy people. They've got their expenses and debts. A lot of women are in need of this money and are anxious. Some have thought it was coming and went out and spent money."

The protracted battle has left many public servants distrustful of the Liberals. As Thibert noted: "This is not only about money. The government made it clear it is an employer that doesn't care." But the public servants' attitude offends many of the pay equity ruling's critics. They argue that the pay equity uproar obscures the fact that Ottawa was not running sweatshops for women in the 1970s and 1980s - government was actually a rare good place for women to work (for many years, the federal civil service offered better conditions, benefits and job security to women than the private sector).

And while it is almost impossible to find anyone to disagree with the principle of pay equity, criticism over the process used to calculate what constitutes equality remains strong. The formula was based on a complex system that first assigned points to jobs, then compared pay in a female-dominated group to all male-dominated jobs in the same points range. In one instance, that resulted in a group of mainly female clerks being compared with a large class of male-dominated jobs that ranged from labourers to economists.

Basford says he has trouble understanding how the process became so convoluted. "I don't think the law itself was wrong," he says - all these years and lawsuits later. "But if it was not workable, or was going to be too expensive, some government somewhere along the line should have just amended the law. Parliament should have spelled it out - rather than let this go on for 20 years."

Maclean's November 1, 1999